For Congressional Iran hawks, death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts

I’m not one to throw bad folks a lifeline when they’re drowning, but can anybody fathom why the Bomb Bomb Iran crowd seems to be doing its best to wreck its own chances of killing a nuclear deal? I don’t think they could have created a safer environment for the talks over the past week if they’d tried, and they’ve done that in the context of trying to scuttle the talks.

Undoubtedly the folks in Congress who would like to see the talks come to an end were pinning their hopes on Benjamin Netanyahu’s big address to Congress to rally the major recipients of anti-Iran donations Congressional troops for a big veto override push on some piece of legislation that would hopefully compel the Iranians to push back from the negotiating table. Not only hasn’t there been a push for such legislation since the speech, the ham-handed way that Netanyahu’s invitation was handled, the perception that he’d been invited by Republicans purely for the purpose of embarrassing Barack Obama, and the blatantly cynical attempt to fast-track deal-killing legislation right after the speech actually caused staunchly anti-Iran Democrats like Bob “Let’s Talk Prices” Menendez to declare that they’re going to give the talks more time before they join any effort to override a presidential veto. Also, and this is somewhat off the point, the political theater aspect of the speech seems to have backfired for Netanyahu as well, seeing as how he’s still trailing in the polls with only a week left until Israeli elections.

So the Netanyahu speech kind of fizzled, but Senate Republicans decided they wouldn’t be happy with fizzle and needed to hatch a scheme that could really blow up in their faces. Enter freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and his Open Letter to Iran or whatever he called it. Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for some reason, all signed a letter on Monday that purported to explain to Iranian political leaders, many of whom have obtained advanced degrees from US universities, how our government works. It essentially told Tehran that any deal they strike with Obama isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, because the Senate as currently composed will never consent to the ratification of any treaty with Iran. But wait! you’re saying, any Iran nuclear deal is going to take the form of an international agreement, not a treaty, and presidents have been negotiating those without Congressional involvement for as long as anybody can remember. That’s true, but then, as the letter “helpfully” points out, America can only be trusted to uphold its end of such an agreement provided that Obama’s successors keep going along with it. The tl;dr version of the letter (which really doesn’t even get the governance issues right, to be honest) is that the Iranians should just walk away from the talks now, because any deal they strike will be functionally dead as soon as Obama leaves office.

You can imagine how badly this went. Cotton and his merry gang spent all day being called “traitors” and being lambasted for what legitimately seems to be an unprecedented and legally dangerous attempt by a Congress to undermine an ongoing executive branch foreign policy agenda. I know I give Congress grief for being invisible most of the time, but the way to remedy that is for it to do its real job, not to invent new jobs to do. This is seriously a frightening precedent, one that dramatically increases the politicization of American foreign policy theoretically puts any future US negotiating partners (and here you should think not just of Iran, but of America’s allies in the P5+1 — the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China — who would have no reason to coordinate future diplomacy with a nation that can’t be trusted to abide by the agreements it negotiates) on notice that the president, whoever it may be, may not really have the authority to cut a deal and then uphold its terms. Foreign policy is the one thing the government can still do, mostly because it operates outside the direct control of our fundamentally broken legislature, but actions like this risk extending our systemic inability to accomplish anything domestically into our conduct of foreign affairs, where it becomes a real national security threat.

In a practical sense, just like the Netanyahu speech, the net effect of this letter seems to be a stiffening of Democrats’ spines (not an easy feat) in the face of a perceived insult, thereby making it harder to get a veto-proof majority for scuttling the talks. It also allowed the administration to isolate Congressional hardliners by identifying them with the most toxic elements of the Iranian political system; Obama noted that these 47 Senators are now officially making “common cause” with anti-deal Iranian hardliners, which probably only surprises you if you’ve been in a coma (Cotton himself has been particularly open about his intentions) all this time but is the kind of rhetoric that will make it hard for wavering senators to get on board with the deal-killers. Indeed, as international relations scholar Daniel Drezner noted, the letter might actually spur Iran to complete the deal now, knowing that the likelihood of getting a better deal under the next president is almost nil (whereas a successful deal concluded now will be politically very difficult for the next president to unravel after it’s been working as planned for almost two years).

To be fair, Brookings Iran expert Suzanne Maloney (like Drezner, somebody who really knows what she’s talking about) is more pessimistic, and argues that there’s a good chance that Iranian hardliners will use this letter to bolster their argument that talking to America is pointless. The decision to continue with the talks is ultimately up to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has charitably been described as “skeptical” of dealing with the US, so he may jump at the chance to force President Hassan Rouhani to walk away from the table. Maloney understands internal Iranian politics better than me or most other folks writing about this deal, but I would counter that the flexibility that Khamenei has already shown in allowing the talks to go on this long suggests that he’s not looking for an escape hatch, and if the rumors of his poor health are true, then it may be even more critical that a deal be struck now than we’d been thinking. What I mean is, Khamenei may possibly be looking at a deal that ends sanctions and begins to bring Iran out of international isolation as his final legacy, whereas there’s a strong likelihood that his successor will be someone as hardline as he is (or even more so), but who won’t have that same impetus to leave his final mark on history.

The thing is, even if Khamenei is looking for an exit door, Cotton’s letter will have provided him with one that simultaneously allows Iran to blame the US for the end of the talks, thereby risking the tenuous international consensus that has kept the sanctions regime in place all this time. If Cotton’s letter scuttles the talks and lets Iran get out from under sanctions without a deal, then it will be the grandest failure possible under these circumstances. War would become considerably more likely in that case, which may be Cotton’s goal, but it would be difficult for the US to rally international support for a step like that if the rest of the world thinks it’s our fault that the talks broke down.

Yes, it’s hard to escape the sense that our intrepid senators really stepped in it this time. Good grief, Cotton and the gang even had Hillary Clinton dunking on them in the midst of trying to clean up after her own unforced error. It got so bad that as I was writing this The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak published an article titled, no fooling, “Republicans Admit: That Iran Letter Was a Dumb Idea,” including this ridiculous attempt to pretend that the letter was just a bit of a goof, an attempt at humor:

Republican aides were taken aback by what they thought was a light-hearted attempt to signal to Iran and the public that Congress should have a role in the ongoing nuclear discussions. Two GOP aides separately described their letter as a “cheeky” reminder of the Congressional branch’s prerogatives.

“The administration has no sense of humor when it comes to how weakly they have been handling these negotiations,” said a top GOP Senate aide.

Not true, guys! Lots of folks got a good laugh out of this whole fiasco — it’s just that they were laughing at you, not with you.

Speaking of Iran, its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Denver but nevertheless was treated to Cotton’s condescending explanation of American governance, complete with insulting Persian translation (for the record, Zarif’s English is better than Cotton’s English, let alone his Persian), then responded by carefully explaining to Cotton how international law is supposed to work. The image of an Iranian politician explaining to an American politician how international norms are supposed to operate should have shamed Cotton, but one imagines the whole thing went over his head.

One thing I will say in defense of these 47 Ronin Numbskulls is that some of the more extreme reaction to their letter has just been silly. You know, this kind of garbage is not helping anybody:

Nor is it particularly useful to head over to the Great Grievance Collector that is Twitter to bandy about hashtags like #47Traitors or the like. This letter was wholly irresponsible and impressively counter-productive, but treason is a legal term that rightfully has a pretty high bar attached to it. Similarly, people who are crowing about the Logan Act may be on to something in an abstract sense, but not really. The Logan Act bars unauthorized Americans from engaging in foreign policy, but for one thing it’s pretty clear that an elected Senator has all the authorization he or she would need to qualify under the Act, and for another the Act itself is probably unconstitutional and has never been successfully used to prosecute anybody since it was written all the way back in 1799 (which explains why it’s stayed on the books despite the constitutional issue).

Hyperbole aside, this was an astonishing attempt by most of the Senate Republican caucus to undermine not only a current executive branch foreign policy agenda, but essentially all foreign policy agendas from here on out. It sets a dangerous precedent for the future, and seems actually to have achieved the opposite of its intent here in the present. So, you know, way to go guys.


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